Growing up as an evangelical Christian, I was taught that atheists are selfish individuals incapable of truly loving others. When, as a young adult, I felt myself losing my grasp on my faith, I was afraid. I worried that without a divine purpose in my life, and without a biblical command to care about others, I would live a selfish and lonely existence.
What I’ve come to realize over time is that when it comes to love and relationships the difference between religious believers and atheists is simply that atheists don’t have religious dogma instructing them on how and who to love and how to carry out or form relationships. Everything else—the desire to be loved, the dedicated parental instincts, the altruistic sensibilities, the sense of loyalty to one’s family and friends—is still there. Those things flow not from religion, but from our basic humanity.
Without instructions flowing from religious dogma, atheists are free to simply focus on finding ways to build healthy relationships and on setting a healthy balance between self and others. Given the lack of atheist dogma, this is a very individual thing. Many atheists marry and raise children together, others get divorced, and still others choose not to marry, or form alternative families or engage in polyamory. As an atheist, there’s no set rule for what a family or a relationship is supposed to look like. Instead, it’s up to you.
My daughter is only three, but she has already learned some important lessons in preschool. She informed me with a very grownup demeanor one day last week that if you want someone to be nice to you, you need to be nice to them. This, when combined with humans’ natural altruism, is what I was missing when, as an evangelical Christian, I thought atheists were of necessity selfish individuals who lived joyless and lonely lives. We all want love and support, and we also know intuitively (and often through experience) that we won’t receive those things if we don’t give them in turn. This may sound mercenary, but I think we all understand deep down that if we want to benefit from community with others we need to give back as well. I also think that we all understand on some level that giving can be just as fulfilling as getting, and that helping others can be just as rewarding as receiving help ourselves.
Love and relationships are not the province of any religion: they are universal.
I value my relationship with my husband because I like having a life partner there to support me, someone who can encourage me when I’m down, laugh with me when I’m happy, hold me when I cry and back me up when I need help. And I, in turn, am there for him. This partnership we have is beautiful not because we believe it’s prescribed by some sort of religious dogma but rather because we’re two individuals who have grabbed hands and are walking through life side by side. And for us, that’s enough.
My husband and I have two young children, and the love of a parent and child is one of those things that transcends religion or lack thereof. It’s a fundamentally human thing. And like marriage or community, it too is cooperative. I give to them, they give back to me and together we build something beautiful and rewarding. We smile together, we laugh together and together we become exasperated, but more than any of that we know that we belong to each other. That belonging is a beautiful thing.
The evangelical Christianity of my youth prescribes specific roles for individuals, declares particular patterns for relationships and lays out detailed scripts. Husbands are supposed to be like this and wives are supposed to be like that, families are supposed to function in this specific way, sex is allowed only inside marriage, and because God has commanded humanity to multiply and fill the earth it is every couple’s duty to have at least a few children. Being an atheist means existing without these scripts. It means being able to form your own families and to find your own meaning and your own sense of togetherness. It also means being able to love free from coercion or guilt. It means leaving aside “the rules” and forming our own.
God doesn’t have a monopoly on love. It is something we create by ourselves.
Libby Anne blogs for Patheos at Love, Joy, Feminism!